Lessons Learned from Contentious Dam Removals

The Boston Globe Magazine published an article this week about a debate to remove three dams from the Shawsheen River in Massachusetts. The article highlighted what American Rivers staff around the country have been confronting for more than a decade: While removing dams is the most effective way to restore native, self-sustaining river habitat, dam removal projects are usually contentious. I’ve had my share of getting yelled at, having fingers stabbed at me, and having my credibility questioned in public meetings.

Reflecting on years of dam removal public hearings, including my participation in the Shawsheen River meetings, here are some thoughts and principles that come to mind:

1) The contentiousness is understandable. Removing a dam is a significant change. No matter how positive that change may be from an ecological perspective, or from a public safety perspective, people don’t like the helpless feeling that something they grew up with is being taken away. Often there is no one alive who remembers what the river looked like before there was a dam there. If you go back and look at the history of the site, there was also commonly contentiousness and opposition when the dam was originally built as well. It is the change that creates the contention. I usually leave public meetings feeling a sense of respect for the people who want to keep things the way they are, even those doing the yelling, because their resistance is understandable.

2) There are two types of concerns that arise in public hearings, technical and emotional. Technical concerns include issues that can be addressed and answered by studies and experience. They include common questions like: Won’t the river dry up if the dam is gone? Or, Won’t there be more flooding if the dam is gone? Emotional concerns are value-laden – some people might like the way the dam looks, or they might prefer fishing for sunfish over trout, or they don’t like the sense that perceived outsiders are changing something in their community. Often emotional concerns are presented as technical questions, but the root concern about the project is really at an emotional level. You can’t “win” an emotional argument and no amount of scientific study will change people’s emotions.

3) Angry detractors usually don’t change their minds. As much as supporters of ecological restoration would like to prove to detractors that a project is a good idea, once people are angry, their positions are set and very unlikely to change. Again, no amount of scientific study is going to make an angry person happy.

4) Supporters are never as loud or forceful as detractors. I think that’s just human nature. We can’t expect supporters of ecological restoration to stand up and start yelling. Supporting a position simply does not have the same emotional strength as opposing one.

5) In most cases, the ultimate decision rests with the dam owner. In the case of private dam owners, public input may be desirable and may even be required by state or local regulation. For dams owned by government entities, public input is critical. Public decision-makers need to be careful that they are not just hearing from the loudest people, but are also considering the big picture, because public dollars go into the repair and maintenance necessary to keep publicly owned dams.

Sometimes it takes until after a dam is removed for people to realize that the resulting river or stream is a nice place also. We’ve heard from some dam removal opponents after the fact that they actually enjoy the restored river. You can see some of those testimonials in a video we produced several years ago called Taking A Second Look: